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UAE refocuses education to be fit for modern demands

Education in the Gulf Shutterstock/
UAE students score better in reading for English than Arabic, something the government wants to address
  • ‘Salama’ curriculcum being made optional
  • Investing in e-learning
  • Targeting lower achievers to raise standards

The UAE is expanding its school curriculum beyond academic subjects and setting up vocational colleges to match the education demands of the modern labour market. 

In one sign of its willingness to reform entrenched practices to boost outcomes, the Emirates has made its “Salama” Arabic language, Islamic studies and ethics curriculum for fourth-graders optional.   

For older students, Abu Dhabi’s Zayed University this year ditched traditional subject divisions in favour of four interdisciplinary programmes: business, computer systems, social innovation and sustainability. 

The Gulf region has risen in global rankings assessing educational attainment among schoolchildren, including PISA, PIRLS and TIMSS (see box below), but scope for improvement remains. 

Private schools, for example, significantly outperform government schools, especially in the UAE. In the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the number of private schools is growing.

Dubai private schools were on a par with the 20 top-performing countries in the most recent assessments.

Shaikha al Zaabi, a leader for the PIRLS reading standard at the UAE Ministry of Education, told a roundtable launching the latest ranking in May: “It helps that the UAE was top in the region, but we are still below the international average.

“The data enables us to understand larger scale trends and provide evidence  that stakeholders can use for systemic-level reform.”

She noted that the English language reading score among UAE students is higher than for Arabic, even if the student is a native Arabic speaker, adding: “This needs more research to understand why.”  

Another observation was that high-achieving UAE students are performing as well as those in high-ranking countries, but low achievers are doing far worse, pulling down the average.

“Our policies need to target this group,” al Zaabi said.

Attainment rankings

Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) measures reading achievement at year-five level (ages 9-10) in 57 countries. 

Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is the OECD’s study of 15-year-olds’ abilities in reading, maths and science. 

Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) tests are taken every four years by two cohorts of students – year five and year nine – from 60 countries.

Governments in the GCC have been investing in education reform and career skills development to further their economic goals. The UAE in particular is investing in e-learning to support digitalisation and encourage home reading.

Both Qatar and the UAE have also expanded the private sector, attracting international franchises and teachers from overseas. 

Provider Gems Education hired a record 2,445 new teachers across its 44 schools in the UAE and Qatar for the 2023-24 academic year.

Meanwhile the UAE’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority said last week that five new private schools in Dubai have added 12,000 seats for the year ahead. 

Despite investments such as these, this year’s Arab Youth Survey, published in July and based on interviews with 3,600 17-to-24-year-olds across the Mena region, found that 40 percent of respondents were “not confident” about their government’s ability to deal with educational reform.